On Nationalism: Essential reading to understand India’s past as well as present

On Nationalism, with essays by Romila Thapar, AG Noorani, Sadanand Menon, is a must-read book.

Kuldeep Kumar July 24, 2016 09:29:27 IST
On Nationalism: Essential reading to understand India’s past as well as present

It is difficult to believe that so much wisdom can be packed in such a small book containing three essays written by Romila Thapar, AG Noorani and Sadanand Menon. This book is a timely and much needed intervention in the on-going debate on the concept and nature of Indian nationalism. As an aggressively competing version of Hindutva-based nationalism is being assiduously promoted by the ruling dispensation at the Centre and in many a state, it becomes absolutely necessary to reflect on the kind of nationalism India needs and Indians want. These essays fulfill this need, as they offer historical, legal and cultural perspectives.

On Nationalism Essential reading to understand Indias past as well as present

The blurb of the book lists questions that have been agitating our minds ever since the Hindutva forces began to gather strength in the mid-1980s and have acquired greater urgency during the past two years. What is nationalism and pseudo-nationalism? Who is an anti-national? What is patriotism?  Is the shouting of nationalist slogans important to prove one’s patriotism?  Why is ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ so important to the right wing? Why is cultural freedom important to a nation? What sort of India do we want?

These questions have acquired a much sharper focus and a much greater urgency in the past two years as the RSS-BJP combine and its government at the Centre have started forcing their version of nationalism down the throat of the people of this country while placing a special emphasis on young students. This version, as Davidar notes, is exclusionary and militates against the idea of India.

Over the past decades, Romila Thapar, the pre-eminent historian of early India, has emerged as an influential public intellectual. Her essay 'Reflections on Nationalism and History' is a tour de force. Tracing the roots of Indian nationalism that was essentially anti-colonial and secular, she points out that religious nationalism, both Muslim and Hindu, has played a marginal role in the anti-colonial movement that resulted in India gaining independence. Both of them were busy attacking each other so as to establish an Islamic and a Hindu state. She also analyses and explains the changes that took place in the writing of Indian history and how the anti-colonial, secular nationalism influenced it. On the other hand, Hindu nationalism (or communalism) viewed Indian past through the lenses of colonial historians. “Both the two-nation theory and the theory of Aryan origins are rooted in the nineteenth-century colonial interpretation of Indian history,” she says.

Underlining the contrast between religion-based nationalism and African nationalism, she shows how the latter, on account of being inclusive, was a positive movement that crafted a black identity and united black peoples of various countries. However, in contemporary India, the meaning of nationalism can be very different for upper castes and Dalits and Adivasis. Thapar points out the irony “when caste Hindus today speak of their supposed victimisation by Muslims for a thousand years, do they pause and think of the tyranny to which they subjected Dalits and Adivasis for over two millennia?” We are faced with a choice today: Should we shout trite slogans prescribed by political leaders to prove our nationalist credentials or should we strive to make a society which stands for secular democratic values and cares for every citizen?

In his essay titled 'Nationalism and Its Contemporary Discontents in India', distinguished lawyer and prolific writer AG Noorani looks at the law dealing with sedition and the origins of the slogan of "Bharat Mata ki Jai". He goes into the details of how this law was made and used by British colonial rulers against the Indian people, how it was first deleted and later incorporated into the Indian Constitution and how it was misused in independent India. The latest was the case of the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Noorani offers a detailed case study of this law of sedition and comes to the conclusion that “no minister or executive officer has any right to pronounce on the guilt of a citizen, as Home Minister Rajnath Singh did on the occasion of the student protests in Jawaharlal Nehru University in February 2016.That right belongs to the courts.” He calls for launching of “an organised campaign against the law of sedition (which is sought to be saved by ‘reforming’ it) and BJP style McCarthyism (‘anti-national’), and for the autonomy of universities.”

Basing his analysis on Chetan Bhatt’s Hindu Nationalism: Origins, Ideologies and Modern Myths and BR Purohit’s Hindu Revivalism and Indian Nationalism, Noorani explains how the Hindutva nationalists’ “Bharat Mata is a devotional rendering of the Mother Goddess as equivalent to the geographical territory of “Akhand Bharat” (Undivided India). It is the same deity that has been depicted in Bankim’s Vande Mataram. One could mention here that there have been studies that have shown how the image of Bharat Mata has evolved pictorially and in most of the Hindutva literature, it is difficult to distinguish it from that of Durga. Bharat Mata is not merely the motherland. It is a divine entity. Noorani too comes to the conclusion that the only nationalism we should espouse is the Indian nationalism so that liberal, democratic traditions of this country could flourish.

Well known cultural commentator Sadanand Menon opens his essay 'From National Culture to Cultural Nationalism' reminding us of Rabindranath Tagore’s novel Gora which contains long debates over the concept of nationalism. Tagore had described nation as “the greatest evil” because its teaching was that “a country is greater than the ideals of humanity”. He also quotes the great Kannada writer UR Ananthamurthy to make a point about multiple identities that an Indian carries and can arouse anyone of them on a particular occasion effortlessly.

While culture and nationalism have always been allies, cultural nationalism is a different kettle of fish as it “strives to define the political nation in narrow, restrictive and culturally monolithic and exclusionary terms”. This Majoritarian nationalism is in reality a ‘rogue nationalism’ which has brought India to a state of implosion. Menon offers rare insights into the way dance forms like Bharatanatyam that had their origins in subaltern classes or non-dominant communities were “fumigated, deodorised, gentrified and de-eroticised”. His analysis reminds one of a similar phenomenon that transformed the nature and practice of Hindustani art music in the 20th century and two Brahmins — Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande and Vishnu Digambar Paluskar — played a key role in this. As information and broadcasting minister in Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet, another Brahmin BV Keskar tried to finish the task by taking this puritanical movement forward. This was when overnight all the Bais were forced to become Devis and Begums.

Menon discusses the recent trend of growing intolerance in all spheres of cultural life and the resistance offered to it by students, writers and artistic community. These three essays form an essential reading for anybody who cares to understand India’s past as well as present. On Nationalism is a must-read book.

On Nationalism
Romila Thapar, AG Noorani, Sadanand Menon
Published in 2016 by Aleph Book Company, pages 162, price Rs 399

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